On 16 January Franciscans celebrate the feast of St. Berard and his four companions, Peter, Otho, Accursius, and Adjutus, the first martyrs of the Order, who were beheaded in Morocco in 1220. This years marks the 800th anniversary of their martyrdom.
At the General Chapter of the Friars Minor in 1219, the decision was made to send brothers to preach the Gospel in Muslim lands – this at a time when the Church was making plans for a new Crusade. Francis himself and several other friars went east to the Holy Land, and Brother Giles and a companion, south, to Tunis.
Berard and his companions went west, to the terroritories of the Almohad caliphate in Southern Spain and Morocco. Any attempt of Christians to attempt to evangelize in Muslim territories was considered blasphemy against Islam; the penalty was death. Despite this fact, Berard and his companions took a bold, confrontative approach.
Although civil authorities and local Christians both in Seville and then Morocco their approach was foolish and tried to dissuade the friars from preaching openly, however, they continued to characterize Mohammed as a false prophet and so were beheaded.
Their bodies were brought to Coimbra, Portugal; the ceremonies around this event inspired a young Portuguese religious to join the Franciscans. He became famous as Anthony of Padua.
It is said that when St Francis heard of their deaths for Christ he said, ‘Now I can say I have five true Friars Minor.’
Various events will be held throughout the years, honouring the five martyrs and reflecting on the meaning of and approaches to Franciscan mission in our own time.